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GCSP Policy Paper n11

February 2011

The Arab Revolt: Roots and Perspectives

by Vicken Cheterian

Key Points
The wave of Arab revolt, which started in Tunisia and then Egypt and Libya, is spreading at
an unprecedented speed. This is the result of not only modern internet-based technologies of communication, but also the deep socio-economic crisis of the region coupled
with autocratic regimes that are not qualified to address the needs of the new generation.
The socio-economic malaise in the region is deep. Youth unemployment, degradation of
natural resources, and demographic explosion are among the driving forces. Corruption
and economic autocracy went hand in hand. There is a need for a complete socio-economic overhaul. Toppling autocracies is a necessary first step, but the success of the current will also depend on the possible creation of new political institutions, and a reformist
It is curious to see the different reaction of the West compared to the wave of the Color
Revolutions a decade earlier. Western leaders, who closely collaborated with the autocratic regimes for decades, and did not come to the support of pro-democracy militants,
need to revise their approach. They should also revise their policies towards the national
questions of the region, including the situations in Palestine and Iraq. Lastly, for a stable
Middle East and North Africa, the West, and especially Europe, needs to revise the position of the region on the global economic map, as oil-based economies of the region have
failed to create the necessary jobs and sustainable development.

The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) is an international training centre for security policy based in Geneva. An
international foundation with over 40 member states, it offers courses for civil servants, diplomats and military officers
from all over the world. Through research, workshops and conferences it provides an internationally recognized forum for
dialogue on issues of topical interest relating to security and peace policy.

he Arab revolt that started in Tunisia and overthrew the reign of Zein El-Abedeen Ben Ali is
taking the form of a huge wave. The regime of
Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the central state of the Arab
World, followed suit. Uprising in Libya continues, in
spite of attempts by the Kaddhafi regime to kill it in
blood and fire. Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen declared
that he will not seek a new mandate, a concession
which only emboldened both opposition and youth
revolt. King Abdallah of Jordan sacked the unpopular
government of Samir Rifai, and named Maruf Bakhit
as the new prime minister and asked him to bring
true political reforms. In a word, the entire Arab
World is facing an unprecedented wave of revolt.
The contestation has already scored a number of victories: the 23 year-old autocrat of Tunisia promptly
left the country to exile in Saudi Arabia; in Egypt,
Hosni Mubarak abandoned long brewing plans to
install his son Jamal in his seat, and was forced to
abdicate, handing power over to the military, after
trying to bring his loyal chief of the mukhabarat, or
the secret services, Omar Suleiman, to the post of
vice president.

In case there is doubt about the importance of

the on-going Arab revolt, an animated debate has
emerged about its nature, and growing, sometimes
anxious prognostics about its possible outcome. On
the one hand we have ardent embrace of yet another Twitter or Facebook revolution, while others
underline the power of the internet and the satellite
televisions in undermining autocratic regimes. Such
comparisons, consciously or not, create an emotional field where the demonstrators or rebels are like
us, our Western, modern, middle-class, globalised
youth. Comparisons of the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the liberation of Eastern Europe with the current
wave of Arab revolt are abundant. Is this The Arab
worlds 1989 Revolution? asks al-Jazeera, while the
Deutche-Welle finds similarities with the events in
East Germany over two decades back?1 Lesser enthusiasts fear the current popular mobilization will topple pro-Western regimes, break the regional power
balance in a way unfavorable to Israel, and eventually open up the political space for Islamist forces,
be it the Muslim Brotherhood or more radical jihadi
Socio-Economic Malaise
The current revolt in Arab countries is deep-rooted,
and surpasses simply rebelling against political authoritarianism to aim at the heart of the socio-economic structure of the region.2 The Arab countries
are some of the most exposed to rising food process,
since the region is one of the dryest in the world,
flanked by the two greatest deserts on the globe:
the Sahara and Rub al-Khali. According to a World

Bank study, the region imports half of its food, and

spends the equivalent of 30 billion USD on food imports. With the on-going population explosion the
regions population is growing at a rhythm of 2.3%
a year and decrease in water availability as a result
of climate change and increased damming of rivers,
the region will increasingly depend on food imports,
and therefore be exposed to international market
fluctuations. The situation of the industrial sector is
not better: the Arab Human Development Report in
2009 notes that the domination of economies by
oil has led to the weakening of other sectors: the
Arab countries were less industrialized in 2007 than
in 1970, almost four decades previously.3 Lastly, the
global crisis of 2008 had a deep impact on the Arab
financial sector. According to one estimate, Arab
countries lost 2.5 trillion dollars as a result of the global financial meltdown.4
The social consequences of those structural problems
are deep: The existing political orders today are too
rigid, autocratic, corrupt, and militaristic, which does
not qualify them to address mounting socio-economic problems. One of the most explosive issues is youth
unemployment: Arab Development Report estimates
that within a decade Arab countries need to create
51 million new positions to accommodate young
people seeking jobs.
The current socio-economic problems are not
unique, but repetitions of periodic failings of regional
economies. The regional economic model, highly resembling colonial era mono-export and dependent
economies, has failed. Today, not only the oil-rich
countries like Algeria or Saudi Arabia are dependent
on petrodollars, but the entire region is through labor
migration, remittances and direct investments from
oil-rich economies. The most evident failures are Algeria and Libya, which are in deep social and political
crisis in spite of rich oil deposits.
What is really peculiar is that the current revolt is taking place when oil prices are relatively high, unlike
the bread riots of the 1980s, a result of a collapse
of international oil prices. This is a clear sign that the
oil-based economic model is a failure, and a source
of regional instability. The best example of this failure
is Algeria, where oil-richness, corruption, military dictatorship and social problems coexist under one roof.
This wave of revolt started on a background of deteriorating social conditions: the rising prices of food
and basic services. This is not a surprise as global
food prices are record high, and in Arab countries
two-fifth of income is spent on food (see Table 1).

Table 1: Percentage of household expenditure

on food from total budget
Saudi Arabia 23.8%
Tunisia 35.8%
Egypt 38.8%
Jordan 40.9%
Algeria 43.9%
Switzerland 10.3%
Greece 14.5%
Turkey 24.8%
See Economic Research Service, USDA, 2007:

Widespread unemployment crossed with the rise of

basic food prices made the situation untenable. Protests against social conditions clashed with the rigid
systems of autocratic rule which do not allow not
only mass protest but political action in general. The
other important element to the start of the rebellion
is complete hopelessness: the symbolic act of 26year old Mohamed Boazizi, the university educated
but unemployed vegetable seller in Tunisia, whose
self-immolation ignited the fire of the Tunisian revolution. It is incredible the speed at which the fire in
Tunisian provinces spread all around the Arab World.
Attempts at self-immolation were repeated in several
countries: Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Yemen, and
even Saudi Arabia.
A number of analysts who see, especially in Tunisia, a
Middle class revolution on the background of economic development, where developing social forces
overthrow an obsolete political system, are off the
mark.5 Although Tunisia does better in comparison
with neighboring countries, it was doing worse in
comparison with its own past: social and economic
conditions were in decline for the last decade, and
in the last three to four years a large number of protests were indicators of this. The new Tunisian Minister of Economic Reform was quoted saying among
the 500,000 or so unemployed were 130,000 graduates6 in a total labor force of 3.8 million. When one
looks at the socio-economic conditions in Algeria,
Egypt, Jordan or Yemen, the situation is even worse
than in Tunisia. On day 16 of Egyptian anti-Mubarak
protest, labor unions declared strikes and expressed
their support to the demonstrations, from employees
of Suez Canal to public transportation workers in the
capital. And on day 18 Mubarak resigned, handing
power over to the military. If we learned something
from the Color Revolutions, especially from Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, it is that the simple rotation of
different fractions of the ruling elites is not in itself
enough to bring reforms to the political system, or to
curb corruption. In Egypt, we did not yet have that

kind of rotation, but the simple disappearance of an

aging dictator for the benefit of the army, which was
never far away from the centre of power.
What is happening in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond is
not simply a young, modern middle-class rebellion
against authoritarian rule anachronistic with recent
economic developments and social stratification. It
is rather social malaise that goes beyond the middle classes to touch workers, the unemployed and
agriculture laborers. This far the popular movements
have not brought about new political institutions,
or pushed hard enough to reform old ones. Yet, it
is not clear whether we will be witnessing a regime
change, or whether the ruling circles will be back to
business once the wave of mobilization dies down.
The on-going Arab revolt seems to be leaderless. The
first reaction by the local regimes, dissidents, and
Western observers alike is that of surprise. No one
saw this coming. It was hopelessness that ignited the
popular revolt, not organized and concerted political action, symbolized by the series of self immolation starting with the desperate act of Mohammad
Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010. The Arab youth have initiated and led
many of the political actions without the leadership
or even the intervention of the traditional opposition
forces.7 Near Tahrir Square in Cairo, young activists
improvised an operations center in an abandoned
touristic company, where they receive journalists
and give orders to the youth in the field.8 While it
is the computer savvy youth who gave new life to
dissent that was bubbling in Egypt for several years,
it is the older generation of political figures who are
negotiating with members of the Mubarak regime
about a solution and transition towards democracy.
In Libya, demonstrations exploded two days earlier than the day of anger announced by opposition parties. This spontaneous uprising resembles
both the Palestinian Intifada of 1987 which was the
result of hopelessness as well as the hunger riots
of the late 1980s in a number of Arab countries. It
can be contrasted with the Color Revolution which
was led by part of the elite in power; many of the
leaders of the Color Revolutions occupied high functions shortly before the revolutions: Saakashvili was
a former Justice Minister of Georgia, Yushenko and
Bakiyev were former prime ministers respectively of
Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
The leadership vacuum will not take long to fill up.
It will largely depend on the nature of the political
struggle inside each country: will the aging rulers
give up power and a new mechanism for democratic
consultations created? Or, will there be massive use
of force and violence, leading to bloodshed and radi-

calizing opposition forces? It will also depend on the

balance of international forces, and whether the
West will come to support Arab democratic forces,
or just abandon them.
What is happening today is similar to the mass riots
that shook a number of Arab countries in the 1980s:
it started from economic problems caused by food
price rises and transformed into political contestation. In this sense, it differs from the Color Revolutions which were essentially political revolutions
triggered by electoral fraud, and did not change the
course of liberal, pro-market reforms that were initiated by the previous generation of rulers, but only
accelerated them as was the case in Georgia.
The National Question
The Arab revolt will cast the national question once
again on the agenda. We have already seen with the
previous wave of Color Revolutions how unsolved
national issue can present an obstacle for political reforms: Kosovo has presented a serious obstacle for
Serbian efforts in rapprochement with the European
Union, while the unresolved conflicts of Abkhazia
and South Ossetia triggered several armed confrontations, culminating with the five-days war between
Georgia and Russia in August 2008.

Similarly, the central national question of the Arab

World is the unresolved issue of Palestine. While
watching the televised coverage of Tahrir Square
on al-Jazeera in Arabic, it was surprising to see how
often anti-governmental slogans reflected the national question: Go away, Mubarak, the agent of
the Americans, or Mubarak, the agent of Camp
David, and how the slogan The people want to
change the regime became the people want to
liberate Palestine. Mubaraks long cooperation with
Israel and the US, against his own public opinion, by
cooperating on the siege of Gaza was a major drawback on his legitimacy.
It is also remarkable how regimes can acquire symbolic legitimacy by casting themselves on the side of resistance, as is the case with the Syrian authorities. In
various chats and discussion groups there are voices
defending the regime of Bashar al-Asad, saying that
he has supported anti-Israeli resistance (in Lebanon
with Hezballah for example), or anti-American resistance in Iraq. For how long will such symbolic capital
help the Baathist regime in Syria which in nature
is not very different from that in Libya while socioeconomic conditions are deteriorating, and while the
regime does not tolerate even the slightest expression of dissenting perspective?

Repression and the Army

Both in Egypt and Tunisia, the primary instrument
of repression of popular protest was the police. Yet,
when the popular protests got bigger and the police
were overwhelmed, the Tunisian army was deployed
but refused to open fire on the people. The Tunisian
armys position forced precipitously Ben Ali to escape
and seek safe haven abroad. In Egypt, too, the primary instrument of repression was the police, and,
like in Tunisia, when the protests became too big, the
police were overwhelmed, taken out of the streets
and the army was deployed in their place.
Yet, the Egyptian army is of a different gist compared
to the Tunisian one: in Tunisia the state relied on the
police Ben Ali being himself a former police officer
while in Egypt the army is in power. The last three
Egyptian heads of state originated from the army and
the free officers movement: Gamal Abdel Nasser,
Anwar al-Sadat, and the most current ruler Hosni
Mubarak. High officers have important privileges and
enjoy much influence in various economic sectors.
With the emergence of the Egyptian revolt, Mubarak
has tried to bring the army into the forefront of his
exercise of power. The newly appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman openly threatened a military
coup in case the opposition pushed its demands of
regime change, rather than being content with cosmetic reforms. But the army is one of the obstacles in
front of modernization in Egypt. The army is susceptible to internal divisions against mounting popular
discontent, and especially divisions between its leadership and the rank-and-file, with their modest social
origins and sympathy to the cause of the dissenting
popular movement.
Here, a comparison with the events in 1989 on the
one hand, and the Color Revolutions on the other,
is interesting. The bread riots of Algeria in 1989 led
eventually to the opening up of the political space
and the first free elections in 1992. When the authorities saw that they were losing to the Islamic Salvation Front, the army intervened to cancel the elections, provoking a bloody civil war that stretched over
a decade and caused over one hundred thousand
victims. The West by and large supported the armys
intervention into politics, and its cancelation of the
elections, fearing an Islamist victory. On the other
hand, Western powers were firm in their rejection of
the usage of armed forces in repressing the opposition in the case of the Color Revolutions. Western
powers did not need to threaten with military reprisal; it was enough to inform the corrupt leaders and
oligarchs of East European countries that in the case
of bloodshed, their bank accounts in the West could
be frozen.

The West
Western political leaders have remained perplexed,
to put it mildly, in front of the popular revolutions
in North Africa, and the spread of popular mobilization elsewhere in the Middle East. The first reaction in
Brussels, Paris or Washington was the fear of losing
a long standing and reliable partner in Ben Ali, Mubarak, and in some cases even with the Colonel Kaddhafi. The other preoccupation of Western leaders
has been to avoid a bloodbath as the popular movement spreads to proportions not seen in decades, and
where the old repressive policies are not enough to
contain dissent. But unlike during the popular, prodemocratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, the West
did not clearly articulate support to the legitimacy of
the popular movements.
And for cause: the US administration developed over
the last three decades very close military, political and
economic cooperation with regimes like that of Hosni Mubarak. In the wake of 9/11, the US administration developed close security cooperation, including
illegal kidnappings and torture, with the Egyptian secret services then headed by Omar Suleiman, the current acting president.9 If anything, European politicians were in a worse position to support democratic
movements in North Africa. Former French Foreign
Minister Michle Alliot-Marie vacationed in Tunisia
and enjoyed the hospitality of a Tunisian businessman close to the Ben Alis family, including the usage
of his private jet for personal reasons, weeks before
his downfall;10 during the same vacation period the
French Prime Minister Franois Fillon in his turn benefited from the largesse of the Egyptian president,
enjoying free holidays on The Nile. The former colonial power which exerts much influence over North
Africa and the Middle East not only could not support the popular movements, nor see them coming;
its key policy makers were personally indebted to the
old dictators and are passing their energy to justify
their wrong acts.11
But Western responsibility is deeper than security cooperation with the police states of Ben Ali, Mubarak,
and the others in the region. We have learned that
Mubarak has a net worth of 40 to 70 billion USD.12
This colossal amount was accumulated illegally, and
although it is good news that Switzerland and the
EU are trying to block Mubarak family accounts, the
question remains whether Western leaders are serious in combating such massive corruption. European
countries should do more to establish much needed
social justice among its southern borders, help these
countries in developing their economies and create
the much needed jobs for the youth. The EU imposed liberal economic policies did not help in job
creation in North Africa; on the contrary, it destroyed
numerous small and mid-sized enterprises unable

to compete with European counterparts.13 The oildependent economies of the region failed to bring
development, modern governance, or even stability.
The current wave of protest is a clear sign that the
region needs to move beyond its oil dependency if it
wants to provide a future to its youth. Here too Europe has a role to play and a responsibility to assume.
What Next?
How far and how deep will the North African revolt
spread is still to be seen. Yet, the future stability of
the region will depend on the kind of reformist energy policy and political institutions the current popular mobilization will bring about. If it fails, then we
will once again have the necessary conditions for the
emergence of radical, nihilist political movements;
whether these movements have Islamist outer crest
or not is not all that important. But today, at the
dawn of a new and unprecedented popular mobilization all across the Arab World, the time should be for
optimism, and it is the task of Europe not to doubt
the final result of the political changes taking place,
but to understand the depth of changes and try and
help the Arab youth to succeed in their transition to
achieve democratic political institutions necessary for
deeper social and economic reforms.
NB: The views expressed in this paper are entirely and
solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect
the views of the GCSP.

1 See Al-Jazeera English service, February 2, 2011: and Deutsche Welle, February 4, 2011:,,14817149,00.html
2 See Vicken Cheterian, The Arab crisis: food, water, energy, justice, Open Democracy, January 26, 2011:
3 Arab Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programme, 2009, p. 10.
4 Al-Hayat, January 11, 2010:
5 Eric Glodstein, A Middle Class Revolution, Foreign Policy, January 18, 2011:
6 Eileen Byrne, Tunisia appeals for aid to protect democracy, Financial Times, February 6, 2011.
7 Al-Hayat, January 17, 2011:
8 Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 6, 2011:
9 Jane Mayer, Who is Omar Suleiman?, The New Yorker, January 29, 2011:
10 Le Monde, Michle Alliot-Marie et la Tunisie, retour sur une polmique, February 7, 2011:
11 Le Monde, Voyage en Egypte: Franois Fillon dit avoir respect les rgles, February 9, 2011:
12 Philipp Inman, Mubarak family fortune could reach $70bn, say experts, The Guardian, February 4, 2011:
13 See the interview of Qantara with Werner Ruf:

About the author

Vicken Cheterian is Director of CIMERA, a Geneva-based institution specialized in political governance (
His research interests are contemporary political evolutions of Arab World and post-Soviet space, including armed conflicts,
environment and security, media and democratization. His latest publications are War and Peace in the Caucasus, Russias
Troubled Frontier, Hurst, London, 2009; and From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions, Reform and Revolution after Socialism, Hurst, London, forthcoming, 2011 (edited).

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